Toronto is a great place to live, but where do you take an out-of-town visitor? The ROM or the AGO? Sure. A ball game or a hockey game? Certainly. Toronto Island. Yes, if the weather is nice. Casa Loma? Meh. Despite all the great things there are to do in this growing, active city, Toronto is shy on big attractions, the kind that draw busloads of tourists.
The new Ripley's Aquarium of Canada that opened next to the CN Tower this week aims to change that. With its bamboo shark touch pool, shark reef crawl tunnel, tsunami simulator and Planet Jellies jellyfish wall, the 12,500-square-metre, 5.7-million-litre facility is a big, brassy affair that expects to draw two million visitors a year.
That very brassiness makes some observers skeptical. The Torontoist website says the aquarium is a fun place and great choice for a kid's birthday party, "but to say that this aquarium is anything like the AGO, the ROM or the Toronto Zoo is a stretch. Those places use public dollars, and they have public missions. By contrast, adult visitors to Ripley's Aquarium will notice that it seems to have been built as a sort of amusement park."
Well, perish the thought. Ripley's aims to entertain, no doubt about that. But so does the ROM's bat cave, a kid-pleasing attraction for years. So does the AGO when it features David Bowie. Entertainment and education aren't oil and water. With the right touch, they can mix beautifully together. The new aquarium is a case in point.
Yes, this is a commercial venture. Adult tickets are a steep $33.88 with HST – compared with $28 at the zoo, $19.50 at the AGO – and you get the full-on entertainment experience from the moment you walk in. The "heart-pounding experience of Dangerous Lagoon" features a moving walkway that carries visitors through a glass tunnel as sharks sail overhead. The jellyfish wall changes from one dramatic colour to the next, illuminating the "hypnotic dance" of the Pacific sea nettle jellies. Kids can board a yellow "research" submarine, squirm into "peekaboo pop-up" bubbles to view the critters close up, or play with toy boats in the Great Lakes locks exhibit.
Some of it is a bit much. The piped-in music is more distracting than awe-inspiring. You exit through – where else – the gift shop. But then, both the ROM and the AGO have gift shops big enough for ballroom dancing.
For the most part, though, the exhibits are artful and the effect quite magical. A two-storey-tall Pacific tank features a surge device that makes the water move up and down as it would on the West Coast.
A gallery of exotic marine life includes a seahorse that has evolved to mimic the appearance of a frilly undersea plant. The Dangerous Lagoon tunnel really does make you feel as if you are walking underwater.In one tank, arctic grayling, a species of salmon from Canada's northwest, use their dorsal fins to tack against the current as a sailboat would against the wind. In another, stingrays glide and swoop. In yet another, lumpfish use suction cups on their undersides to attach themselves to rocks, just as they would in the Bay of Fundy when the tide rushes in and out.
In one tube-shaped tank, an octopus changes both its colour and texture to disguise itself against a rock. Octopuses, explains a guide, are highly intelligent. To keep them from getting bored, staff offer them "enrichment," like hiding food in a peanut-butter jar and challenging them to get it out.
Director of husbandry Andy Dehart, who worked at the U.S. National Aquarium in Baltimore for 20 years, says he hopes visitors come away enriched, too. "If people can see a shark swimming gracefully through the water, they can see they are not mindless eating machines, as they are portrayed. My hope is that people leave the aquarium changed a little bit."
Some visitors say they indeed learned from the visit. "Sharks have an infinite number of teeth," says Rachel Salanena, 18, a University of Ottawa student, explaining how she learned about the rows of teeth in a shark's mouth and how teeth move forward to replace lost ones.
Others just had fun. Shannon Houston, 18, visiting with her mother and her sister, shot a lot of pictures with her phone. "It's a great place to take selfies."
Whether visitors come for education, entertainment or both, the aquarium is a great new attraction for a city that could use a little more pop. It deserves applause, not sneers.